Most commonly known as Assyrians and other variants of the name (Syriacs, Assyro-Chaldeans, Chaldo-Assyrians), the Assyrian people is a distinct ethnocultural community originated from the ancient Assyrian communities indigenous to the north of Mesopotamia. They are also known as Chaldeans, Nestorians and Arameans. A Christian people, the Assyrians speak today a modern Aramaic language and they are concentrated mostly in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, with a large diaspora (USA, Western Europe, Australia).
Starting modestly at the city of Ashur, the ancient Assyrian state became a regional power with the Old Assyrian Empire from the late 21th century to the mid 18th century BC. Later, Assyria became a huge political entity, which, during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-608 BC), reached from the Caucasus (the present-day Armenia) to the Nile (Egypt).
After the fall of this empire in 608 BC, the Assyria came under various foreign rule (Babylonian, Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman, Sassanid, Arab) and, finally, became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Under the Ottoman rule, the Christian Assyrians suffered religious persecution and faced ethnic discrimination, which, after a number of massacres throughout the 17th, 18th and 19 centuries, culminated in the large scale Hamidian massacres of 1895-1896.
After centuries of persecutions and discrimination, the Assyrian community was expressing a surprising vitality at the beginning of the 20th century.
Concentrated in the northern part of the Mesopotamia and the adjacent regions, the Assyrians represented, accordingly to the population estimates proposed by the Assyrian nationalists at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), the majority in the sandjaks of Siirt and Hakkari (in present-day Turkey), and an important minority in Urmiyah (Persia/Iran), the sandjak of Mosul (in present-day Irak) and the vilayet of Diyarbakir (the Turkish Kurdistan). Other large Assyrian communities were established in the sandjaks of Zor, Aleppo and Urfa (in today Syria).
The World War I has dramatically changed the Assyrian society. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1920, « one-half of the Assyrian nation had been put to death or had died from sickness and exposure during the war ». This tragic loss of population is regarded by the Assyrians as a Genocide and represented the main argument for the establishment of an autonomous or independent Assyrian state.
In 1915, a first nationalist project aimed the creation of a New Assyria, a multinational entity which was composed by all of Mesopotamia and some adjacent regions (Urmiyah, Van, Aleppo, etc.).
In 1917, the Assyrian nationalists called for the establishment of a more modest and monoethnic self-governed Assyria in the regions of Urmiyah (Persia), Mosul and the Northern Mesopotamia (Ottoman Empire).
At the conference of Lausanne (1922-1923), Agha Petros, a well-known Assyrian military leader during the WWI, proposed various territorial variants of an autonomous « Assyro-Chaldea », based on the 1915 population data. A maximal proposal concerned the regions of Urmiyah, Mosul and Van, and a less radical formula regarded only the ethnic Assyrian triangle between Tigris and Great Zab.
Finally, the nationalist projects failed and the Assyrian territory has been divided between various states.
After the WWI, at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), several Assyrian delegations had requested the creation of an Assyrian state, autonomous or independent. Most of the projects included northern Mesopotamia, the present-day Iraqi Kurdistan (with Erbil), the regions of Van, Diyarbakir and Urmiyah, and a strip all the way to Mediterranean Sea, with the city-port of Alexandretta.
A less radical demand suggested the establishment of a state of the « Assyro-Chaldean nation » between the Euphrates in the west and the Armenia in the east, from Tikrit (the hometown of Saddam Hussein!) to north of Diyarbakir, with a free access to the sea.
The Assyrian demands have been rejected and the new division of the Middle East between France and Britain forced the Assyrian elites to reconsider their options.
In the French-mandated Syria, the French government was favorable to an autonomous Assyria in the northeastern Syria, but the project, presented in 1920, was eventually abandoned in 1922.
In the British-mandated Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Assyrians have demanded an autonomous Assyrian enclave near Mosul, in the north of the country. After the massacre of Simele (1933), they reclaimed again the establishment of a national home in the region of Mosul, inside the Assyrian triangle. This small Assyrian enclave had to be named the New Assyria.
But these projects remained only on paper...
Territorially divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran (Persia) after the WWI, the Assyrian nation had to experience a new era of persecution and discrimination in the post-WWII period.
However, the fall of Saddam Hussein has substantially changed the fate of the Assyrians. Since the new Iraqi Constitution proclaimed that the State shall guarantee the administrative and political rights of the various nationalities, the Assyrians have proposed the creation of an Assyrian autonomous entity near Mosul in order to protect the Assyrians’ rights and preserve the Assyrian identity. In January 2014, the Iraqi government stated that the western side of the Assyrian Triangle would become a new province, The Nineveh Plains Province, which has to serve as an Assyrian autonomous entity.
Unfortunately, the dramatic crisis provoked in the Middle East by the evolution of the DAESH, a radical Islamic movement, has hampered the Iraqi initiative and has seriously affected the viability of an Assyrian administrative enclave.
Later, the Kurdish referendum on independence held in October 2017 and the aggressive Iraqi government answer have seriously affected the projects aiming to establish an autonomous Assyrian entity.
Without an adequate foreign assistance, the Nineveh Plains Province Initiative has no real chance to survive and the risk of the extinction of the Assyrian community after four thousand years of history is extremely high.
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A Story in Five Maps by Cristian Ionita